This was one of two books that my sister Claire gave me for Christmas and it has been my breakfast book for a while, then has been my lunchtime book at work this week because I have been in the cage. The title reminded me of 'The Left Hand of Darkness' where the country is also called Winter. Patrick Gale came to the Manchester Literature Festival back in 2012 and he also made (to me) a very memorable appearance a couple of years ago on an alumni version of University Challenge. I read 'Note From an Exhibition' back in 2010 when we were moving up to Manchester, and think I have enjoyed 'A Place Called Winter' just as much.
I was very pleased to discover in reaching the end that the story of Harry is a fictionalisation of events in his own family. Well, Patrick explains, sort of fictional. His great-grandfather Harry really did get married, have financial difficulties and then go to Canada. So much is true, but he was unable to get to the bottom of why Harry really went, and why the family were reluctant for him to return, and so he creates a tale of hidden and illegal passions that are covered up to save the family from shame. So this is a tale very much in the vein of 'My Ántonia', of people who work indescribably hard to forge a life in a new, untamed place, and at the same time a love story of two people who form a bond in the unlikeliest of situations.
I just went with the flow of the story so I've just a couple of quotes to tempt you. I think the life in Canada is well researched and everything about the way it is written feels very authentic:
"Moose Jaw was far more developed than its age had led Harry to expect. It already boasted some large brick buildings - a school, a hospital, some hotels and a post office - and the station where they arrived would not have disgraced a small city back home. The buildings' size and confidence only emphasised the raw, provisional nature of their surroundings, however: wooden shops-fronts, more like fairground stalls than real buildings, streets of churned mud and worse, and everywhere vacant building plots carefully outlined with posts and wires but boasting as yet nothing but spring weeds. There was a certain bustle, the tinny sound of a pianola from inside the pub, but there seemed to be no more women in evidence than had been on the train or boat. Harry had not appreciated until now how much hats and dresses adorned a scene." (p.134)
And later, when he finally settles in his own place. I liked the idea of both familiarity and distance in the community; everyone knew everyone, even knew their business, but often kept to themselves and came only infrequently into contact. Here Harry has a housewarming party:
"Aside from his wedding reception, which arguably had been Mrs Well's party and not his, it was the first party he had ever thrown. People came, which surprised him, and they asked lots of impertinent questions, which didn't. They enjoyed entering rooms and peering out of windows they would never enter or peer out of again. They left behind a quantity of cheeses, pickles and jams and even a side of bacon.
'There,' Petra said, when they had waved off the last of them. 'Now they know you're just like them, with no more mystery to you than anyone else, and you'll be left alone.'
The house possessed no furniture yet except two hard chairs, a table and a camp bed, but the array of jams and pickles on the shelf and the bacon hanging from a hook made it look lived in." (p.240)
Then the war comes crashing into their settled lives ... 'heart-wrenching' says the review on the cover, so beware.